MINI SERVER: Marvell Technology's SheevaPlug is a two-inch by four-inch (five- by 10-centimeter) box that plugs into any wall outlet and is almost indistinguishable from an oversize power supply. Image: © MARVELL TECHNOLOGY
Tiny computers are everywhere—our cell phones, handheld gaming devices and set-top boxes, to name a few—so it should be no surprise that Marvell Technology in Santa Clara, Calif., one of the companies that makes the chips that go into such devices, managed to cram an entire home server into the SheevaPlug, a two-inch by four-inch (five- by 10-centimeter) box that plugs into any wall outlet and is almost indistinguishable from an oversize power supply.
Sheevaplug is designed to deliver storage capacity and processing power for technophiles looking to string together every network-capable device in their house so they can share movies, music, photos and other files, hook up surveillance cameras or create a mini data center that fits in the palms of their hands. Although much of this can be accomplished today using a standard computer server or even a PC costing anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars, Sheevaplug's diminutive size, low price ($100) and minimal power consumption (less than five watts) make it an intriguing option.
Knowing that its current audience consists of tech-savvy tinkerers interested in experimenting with new computing platforms, Marvell designed the Sheevaplug to run on the Linux operating system, whose source code is freely available for anyone to use. Marvell also documented the device's hardware on its Web site so the curious could see how it works. "What we want is for developers to get this kit and come up with nifty applications for it," says Raja Mukhopadhyay, Marvell's product marketing manager.
ScientificAmerican.com found some adventurous alpha geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (M.I.T.) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Carnegie Mellon University, Intel and elsewhere and asked them what kind of uses they could come up with for the SheevaPlug. We came away with eight different ideas:
1. Home automation:
"I would hook it up to a Web camera and track myself in the house," says Nikolaus Correll, an M.I.T. CSAIL postdoctoral associate. "The system could react to my presence by simple motion detection and then turn heating and lighting on and off. It could also detect my activities such as studying, dining and watching TV, and match them to a preset set of [automated] actions. Eventually it could even create a statistical profile of my activities that helps me optimize energy consumption."
2. Desktop computer replacement:
Sheevaplug features a 1.2 gigahertz processor made by Cambridge, England–based ARM, Ltd., 512 megabytes of RAM and 512 megabytes of flash storage—all comparable with what is found on low-end PCs. "Small-scale computing is catching up with the amount of [computer processing power] people need to do meaningful interactive tasks: Web browsing, e-mail, listening to music, and even—if not now, soon—watching movies or TV," says Dave Andersen, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a former CSAIL PhD student. Andersen, whose research demands that he use small clusters of low-power processors to tackle larger computing tasks, sees a lot of potential in using SheevaPlug's processor, memory and storage capacity to make a low-cost computer server.